THE TEN BEST ACTION MOVIES OF 2015

January 5, 2016

still_3
Since their inception the movies have been obsessed with fists hitting faces. In the testing phases of Edison’s Kinetograph in 1891, W.K.L. Dickson shot footage of sparring boxers, cementing the sweet science as one of cinema’s enduring subjects. Though the medium matured, its audience (myself included) did not, and the appetite to watch performers sacrifice their bodies for our amusement has never abated. For a century filmmakers have been trying to capture the perfect punch in action movies, whether it’s in globetrotting blockbusters with CGI blood spurts or no-budget brawlers with practical squibs. There were plenty of worthy  efforts in 2015, and since it’s list-making season, below you’ll find my top ten action movies of the last year.

no-escape-trailer

10. (tie) No Escape  (directed by John Erick Dowdle) and Survivor (directed by James McTeigue)

Pierce Brosnan has entered his dissolute character actor phase, and it is glorious. The first glimpse of it was in John Boorman’s Tailor of Panama (2001), in which he took the piss out of his James Bond character by playing this secret agent as a lazy, decadent fool. As he transitions out of leading roles and into the background, his characters get more seedy. In the critically reviled No Escape, Brosnan has a small part as a sex tourist in Hawaiian shirt and puka shell necklace (or so it seems) who helps Owen Wilson and Lake Bell spirit their family to safety after there is a violent revolution in an unnamed Asian city. The movie is bluntly effective, as when the parents have to engage in some kid-tossing off of rooftops, or when Wilson has to learn to kill a man with an office lamp. Brosnan is the reason for seeing it though, with his oily, self-destructive swagger and perpetual five o’clock shadow, he is something like James Bond after his fifth stint in rehab. It’s a character going through the motions of heroism because it’s what is expected, but all he really wants to do is embrace the death he’s been courting his whole life.

Survivor is preposterous nonsense, but it’s MY kind of preposterous nonsense. Brosnan is a shadowy mad bomber called “The Watchmaker” who wears those tiny jeweler eyeglass things and occasionally has a mustache. If that wasn’t enough, he’s being chased by U.S. immigration official Milla Jovovich, who spends most of the movie panting in exhaustion. She is framed-up as being an inside woman for a terrorist group, and is in turn chased around London and NYC by Brits and Yanks alike. Cast also includes Dylan McDermott, Angela Bassett (!), Robert Forster (!!) and in his final performance (as a maniacal Romanian “pharmaceutical gases” scientist), Roger Rees.

 

closerange_-mov-still439

9. Close Range, directed by Isaac Florentine

The latest collaboration of DTV dynamos Isaac Florentine and Scott Adkins is a simple showcase for Adkins’ ability to kick people very hard. Adkins is an ex-soldier and an ex-con whose niece is kidnapped by a Mexican drug lord. So Adkins does what he must, in a series of fights beautifully choreographed by Jeremy Marinas of 87Eleven Action Design. You can read my full review of the film here.

 

REDEEMER_Theatrical-STILL_4

8. Redeemer, directed by Ernesto Díaz Espinoza

This Chilean revenge drama is straightforward pulp, superbly executed. It stars Marko Zaror as the eponymous avenger, a haunted man in a hoodie trying to expunge his past sins. He focuses his redeeming powers against an American Bro drug lord (a very funny Noah Segan), and a specter from his past known only as “The Scorpion”.  Zaror is a physical freak (he is Adkins’ main opponent in Undisputed 3), and the fight sequences are very technical MMA-based grappling that proceeds at a slower speed than most fight films. This deliberate pace really allows you to see the development of the attacks and counter-attacks, making the film a reliable tension and release machine.

 

Wild Card Movie (4)

7. Wild Card, directed by Simon West

A laid back Jason Statham product that is a remake of Burt Reynolds’ Heat. This one debuted on VOD in January and swiftly disappeared without a trace. But it finds Statham playing around with his persona, trying on different poses that never quite stick: grouchy office worker, shooting-the-shit gladhander, and depressive, melancholy addict. When he snaps back into Statham the cannonball, the fight scenes are choreographed by the great Corey Yuen (The Transporter), and they do inventive, violent things with ashtrays and butter knives. I also wrote about this one at length over here.

 

Chris-Hemsworth-And-Tang-Wei-Movie-BlackHat-Wallpaper

6. Blackhat, directed by Michael Mann

An impressionistic smear of our hyper-connected age, with gunfights. Leonine Australian hunk Chris Hemsworth makes for an unconvincing hacker, but this is a movie in which the small details seem absurd but the grand gestures are entirely, overwhelmingly convincing. Hemsworth is an imprisoned hacker who is sprung loose to help the U.S. feds track down a cybercrime network around the world. As Hemsworth moves from city to city, country to country, the borders seem to blur along with Mann’s woozy images.

 

SPL2-1050x608

5. SPL2: A Time for Consequences, directed by Soi Cheang

This won’t be released in the U.S. until later this year (by Well Go USA), but it has been out everywhere in Asia and has screened in festivals throughout 2015. SPL2 is a sequel to SPL (2005, aka Kill Zone), although it bears no relation to the original. The main protagonists Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung are nowhere to be found, here replaced by Tony Jaa and Wu Jing. Wu Jing is an undercover police officer in deep cover inside a Thai prison, while Jaa is a guard at the prison. Both of them get entangled in the illicit organ trafficking operation of Louis Koo. This is an anxious film wracked with paranoia, and director Soi Cheang (of the Milkyway productions Accident and Motorway) sustains a tone of barely contained hysteria. People are profitable bloodbags for Louis Koo, and the movie continually emphasizes the brute limitations of the human body.

 

roguenation2-xlarge

4. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, directed by Christopher McQuarrie

This is the slickest entry on the list, a sinuous series of set-pieces that never bogs down in exposition. Tom Cruise gets stranger and more robotic each year, but the Mission: Impossible series keeps improving. I was particularly impressed with the assassination games during the opera, a complex minuet of overlapping POVs that provides one of the many tense standoffs between Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson, the MI5 agent whose motivations are at cross-purposes with the Impossible Missions Force. Ferguson slinks away with the movie, her lithe athleticism perfect for the film’s clockwork mechanisms.

 

RAN-14095r

3. Run All Night, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

A chase film between two old men sapped of energy. Ed Harris and Liam Neeson play two buddies from NYC’s Westie gang who turn against each other because of the sins of their children. That is, Neeson’s son has murdered Harris’ son. Due to the personal codes of conduct buried in their genes, they must hunt the other down. Neither seems to relish it. Let’s call it a reluctant revenge film. So they trudge through the outer boroughs looking for a kill, and on the way pass through all their old haunts, which are also on their way out. It provides everything it’s title implies: speed, exhaustion and darkness. I went longer on this film over here.

 

taking_tiger_mountain_still

2. The Taking of Tiger Mountain, directed by Tsui Hark

This Chinese epic has grandly orchestrated ski fights and tiger battles, while the framing story deftly deals with the slipperiness of historical truths. It’s about a Communist army unit who infiltrates a bandit gang and brings them down from within, an old-school adventure told with wit and feeling. But the framing story does much to question the propagandistic value of the film inside. It’s a complex, hugely entertaining film that was a massive hit in China and deserves a larger audience stateside. I would recommend reading Grady Hendrix’s highly informative article for further context.

 

heres-how-the-insane-vehicles-were-created-in-mad-max-fury-road.jpg

1. Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller

To Godard’s quote that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, I would add that you should also include a double-necked flame-throwing guitar.

THROWING HANDS: CLOSE RANGE (2015)

December 1, 2015

maxresdefault3

As with their blockbuster brethren, direct-to-video action movies thrive on previously existing brands. These cheaply made concoctions can’t afford to license comic books, so they market personas instead, whether it’s Van Damme,  Lundgren, or even Cuba Gooding Jr. While their careers as major stars were brief, fight fans flock to the familiar, so these nostalgia acts are essential to secure production funds, even if they only appear in a scene or two. This doesn’t account for the burgeoning cult surrounding actor-director duo Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine. Adkins is the rare performer who has made himself a bankable star inside of the DTV universe, despite having only landed bit parts in major films outside of it (The Expendables 2, the upcoming Doctor Strange). He is unknown among the general public, but Adkins and Florentine’s defiantly old-fashioned attitude regarding the shooting and blocking of fight scenes have made them cult heroes among the small but vocal DTV action film fanbase. Close Range is their eighth film together, and it is distilled down to the basics. A revenge drama set on the U.S.-Mexico border, it pits Adkins against a drug cartel, whom he dispatches in a series of increasingly bloody showdowns. The action takes place mainly along one rural dusty road where Adkins goes one-on-one with an SUV and one-on-dozens during an extended siege. Available on VOD and iTunes December 4th, with a limited theatrical run December 11th, Close Range is a satisfying back-to-basics brawler.

CloseRangePoster_3LR

Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (2013) was the most recent Adkins-Florentine collaboration, a spectacular throwback to the martial arts films Cannon was producing in the ’80s. Close Range has more of a Walking Tall vibe, of corruption eating away at a small town until a principled psycho tries to clean it up.  The script was written by DTV vet Chad Law (Van Damme starrer 6 Bullets) and Shane Dax Taylor, which sends sullen ex-soldier Colton MacReady (Adkins) on a mission to rescue his kidnapped niece Hailey (Madison Lawlor). She was nicked by a Mexican drug cartel led by Fernando (Tony Perez), who are using her as leverage to get money owed them from her stepfather Walt (Jake La Botz). During the rescue, Colton swipes a flash drive which contains all of the cartel’s records. So the gang follows him home, and the war will never end until one side is wiped out.

closerange_-mov-still439

Adkins is still a work-in-progress as an emoter, but here he isn’t asked to do much other than glower and spin-kick, which is what the man was born to do. Trained in taekwondo and kickboxing, Adkins has the agility of a dancer, and once he gets those long-levered limbs going he is a joy to watch.  Fight choreographer Jeremy Marinas is the one pulling his strings, one of the many great talents coming out of 87Eleven Action Design, the stunt rigging/rental/training organization led by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, the directors of John Wick. Marinas has Adkins work a lot in close brawling combat here, playing off of Colton’s presumed training as a soldier. This is not a martial arts showcase, but exhibits fights that are going for the quick kill. This is evident in Marinas’ cameo as a hired goon whom Adkins dispatches with a flick of his belt knife, a necessary accoutrement for any aspiring vigilante.

Close-Range2

 Florentine is not a flashy director but a cogent one, wanting his films to be showcases for the stunt performers (he is a trained martial artist himself). He often films in long shot so no body part is chopped off by the frame. His most attention-getting sequence is placed at the beginning, a long take of Colton fighting his way through a hallway and into the cartel’s office. Adkins told the Action Elite site that they had half-a-day to shoot the sequence, managing to get six or seven takes. It is more elaborate than a similar shot in Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, in which Adkins hip-tosses his way through a dojo. In Close Range the action is more fluid, a less-mechanical hitting of spots. But I vastly prefer the more traditional fight sequences in Florentine’s films, in which mini-narratives emerge of strikes and counters. These single take fights are Adkins as battering ram.

close-range

Though he has found success in DTV, Adkins is openly critical of the limitations it places on Florentine and himself. In the same Action Elite interview, Adkins says:

It pushes you more but I don’t think it elevates your game. You get really tired and with that comes lack of focus and you can’t concentrate like you should be. The action stuff is not easy, it’s always hard because we are pushing to do great stuff but it’s something I know like the back of my hand, but then you have to go from spending ¾ of the day doing a really intense fighting sequence in the heat and then have to go and deliver as an actor at a time when you are feeling just shattered and just want to go to bed. I want to deliver the action as much as I deliver the drama and if it’s a low budget you haven’t got the time to always do that – I wish we had more time to deliver on both fronts but that’s also the charm of some of these films. We are almost nostalgic in the way we make these movies. They are like a throwback to the eighties and early nineties.

He also admits that they had trouble reaching the required minimum running time for the feature, necessitating an incredibly long sequence identifying each member of the drug cartel, despite most of them having no lines or identifiable characters. These films consist of an endless series of artistic compromises, but these are the allowances the DTV action film fan makes for any Adkins-Florentine production. There will be stilted supporting actors, threadbare sets, and hand-me-down plots, but once the fists start flying, their artistry becomes as undeniable as a kick to the kidney.

DTV ACTION ITEMS (PART 1): AN INTERVIEW WITH OUTLAW VERN

May 1, 2012

Screen Shot 2020-02-03 at 4.30.37 PM

The summer movie season is obnoxiously approaching, with long-form toy commercial  The Avengers opening on Friday.  While estimable writer-director Joss Whedon is sure to provide a witty quip or two, this is still a 142 minute movie about a gang of men (and a token woman) who wear molded plastic underwear. This 3D “spectacular” will cost upwards of $20, so I submit that your movie dollar is better spent on the humble direct-to-video action movie. With no budget for CG, these cheap-o brawlers resort to showing actual humans moving in real spaces, often with jaw-dropping athleticism. And if not, they are over in 90 minutes or less.

For the next three weeks, I’ll be discussing DTV action movies, in the hopes of bringing more appreciative eyes to this last bastion of  the B-movie spirit. This week, I chat with Outlaw Vern about the general state of DTV movies today, from its studios to its stars. Vern has been a vocal (and very funny) supporter of the genre for years at Ain’t It Cool News and his own popular review site, sparking my own interest in them with his polemical call-to-arms in his write-up of The Marine 2““Some of us are starting to suspect that there’s been a switcheroo, that the DTV format – once designated as a 100% crap zone – has become the more reliable place to find good [English language] action movies.” The more I watch, the more I agree with him.

The interview was conducted over e-mail. Vern writes in very slangy prose, so words like “websight” are not typos, but are his own invention. You can order his book on Steven Seagal, SEAGALOGY, here.

For some background, what year did you start reviewing movies? Could you talk about what led you to start up your site?

I started in ’99. Back then there was this thing on the internet called “newsgroups” which was sort of like bulletin boards, and I would write crappy little movie reviews on the one called rec.arts.movies.current-films. Some of the people there thought what I was writing was funny and sort of sarcastically suggested starting a websight, so I did. After doing it for a long time I got better.

Did you cover DTV movies right from the start, or was there a particular film (or actor) that made you pay closer attention to them?

It started because I had a friend who was hooking me up with screeners from a video store, these were VHS tapes that the studios sent out to promote upcoming movies. Since they were movies that hadn’t come out yet I would write about them and send it in to Ain’t It Cool News. Back then a lot of them were sequels to Wild ThingsCruel IntentionsThe Skulls, stuff like that. I also got some of the DTV Steven Seagal movies and I was really interested in him because of On Deadly Ground so I really took to those and that obsession led to me writing my book Seagalogy.

Unlike the majority of movie writers, you focus a lot on the way action scenes are shot. What do you think are the key ingredients to making a good action/fight sequence? Of those, what do you think DTV movies do particularly well?

There’s no one way to do an action scene but I’m very big on them having a clear sense of where the characters are standing and what they’re doing. That used to be a minimum standard of competence but now it’s kind of rare. A decade ago I was really bothered by fast edits starting with Armageddon, and then started worrying about bad framing after Gladiator, and of course since then you can usually assume that a theatrically released action movie is gonna have most of the scenes shot very close up with a handheld camera so you get confused and aren’t sure if anything cool happened or not. When the director actually makes an attempt to plan out the shots and clearly show people fighting it becomes a major promotional point, like in Hanna and Haywire.

For a long time actually the action was usually crappy in DTV movies. For example Seagal’s action scenes showed way less effort and craftsmanship than his earlier movies. Belly of the Beast and Urban Justice are two exceptions. But in recent years as most of the studio action movies have turned into shakycam bullshit with actors pretending to be fighters instead of the other way around, DTV became sort of the last refuge for American fight movies with the spirit of what we used to love in the ’80s.

Could you give a general DTV lay of the land for newcomers? Who are the major studios, directors and actors?

Millennium Films is mostly theatrical now (they did The Expendables and the Conan the Barbarian remake) but they were sort of the Cannon Films of the early 2000s, pumping out lots of the DTV movies starring Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Wesley Snipes. Those guys, Dolph Lundgren and Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. are the primary marquee names doing DTV vehicles, but of course Wesley’s in jail now and Seagal has slowed down a little to do TV shows. For the time being I think Stone Cold Steve Austin is the most prolific star with a good track record. Most of his DTV movies, especially Damage, are way better than his one theatrical starring role, The Condemned.

WWE Studios (or “the prestigious WWE Studios” as I always call them) made The Condemned but I think they’ve become much more trustworthy in the DTV market. I really enjoyed The Marine 2starring the son of a wrestler I used to watch in the ’80s, and a quirky crime drama called Inside Out where the wrestler Triple-H is reunited with his Blade 3 co-star Parker Posey to play an ex-con who gets mixed up in his friend’s untaxed cigarette scam, but just wants to make pickles [this actually received a limited theatrical release last year -RES].

Years ago it seemed like no DTV directors left a mark on their movies unless it was a mark of suckiness. Now there are a bunch of directors I try to keep an eye on: Isaac Florentine (Undisputed 2 and 3NinjaSpecial ForcesUS Seals II, many others) and John Hyams (Universal Soldier: RegenerationDragon Eyes) are the standouts, but I’m also interested in William Kaufman (The Hit ListSinners and Saints), Roel Reiné (Pistol Whipped, The Marine 2Death Race 2) and Jesse V. Johnson (The ButcherPit Fighter).

Where are most DTV productions shot? And do you know the general budget of most of these productions?

It seems like most of them shoot in Vancouver, but Avi Lerner, founder of Millennium, has a studio in Bulgaria, so a lot of them are shot there. There are a lot of New Orleans productions now too, because of tax incentives they have there. I don’t really know about budgets, but I just looked it up and IMDb estimates Universal Soldier: Regeneration at $14 million, less than a fourteenth what it cost to make Battleship.

What is your opinion of the “mockbusters” that the production company The Asylum  churns out? Most of them look like manufactured kitsch, but is there anything worthwhile or interesting there?

Not that I’ve seen. I mean, I get a laugh from the titles and covers like everybody else, but the parts I’ve seen have been terrible and not in a fun way, so I haven’t had the stomach to venture into that territory too much. People always ask me to review different ones but I’ve never had anyone claim to have found one that was watchable. Actually I thought about watching I Am Omega because it stars Mark Dacascos. That could still happen. My dream is that they’ll start doing rip-offs of Oscar winners. I’d like to see The King’s Peach and The Artiste. The ‘e’ in Artiste would be really small on the cover.

Scott Adkins is a favorite of yours (and now mine). How would you describe his work to someone who hasn’t seen him before? Do you think he’ll ever break through in Hollywood?

Adkins is an agile, high-kicking screen martial artist kind of like a modern Van Damme, but he’s English so he’s more eloquent in our language. But actually I like him best in the Undisputed movies playing a stoic Russian criminal. He has more of a background in straight acting than most action stars, having been on British TV shows like EastEndersand Mile High, but it’s his fighting that has earned him a following. He also kind of looks like Ryan Reynolds, so he was able to stunt double Reynolds in Wolverine.

I don’t know, part of me feels like he’s so talented and likable and has such an impressive body of work that he’s destined to blow up on the big screen, but part of me thinks there’s just not a theatrical market for martial artist stars like that anymore. Jason Statham is probably the closest thing we have to that in the western world.

Of the aging DTV action stars (Seagal, Lundgren, Van Damme and the like), who is making the most interesting stuff? Any recent recommendations?

I think Van Damme is in an interesting place right now, because he turned down The Expendables to do Universal Soldier: Regeneration, which totally paid off because US:R is a way better movie and now he gets a bigger role as the lead villain in Expendables 2. He’s really great in US:R, playing his zombie super soldier character as a burnt out, tragic character yearning for humanity but not able to reach it. Lundgren is also great in that (he’s only in a few scenes because he didn’t turn down Expendables). He’s doing some experimenting now too, he did an indie comedy, he’s got one coming out where he plays a villain, and he’s working with 3 of the directors I listed above, plus doing some directing of his own.

The best recent movie I’ve seen with any of those guys is Dragon Eyes, but Van Damme really just has a glorified cameo as the mentor to Cung Le.

I know you’re an admirer of Isaac Florentine. What makes him in particular such an effective DTV director?

He’s a martial artist himself and also grew up a movie nerd obsessed with Sergio Leone. But my theory is – and I’m not sure anybody else subscribes to this one – that it comes from directing Power Rangers. He did like 60 episodes as a choreographer and directed a lot of those so it just gave him years of practice quickly shooting down and dirty martial arts sequences with very little money. He loves movement and believes in visual storytelling, so he has a very energetic but clear visual style. And at this point he’s done more than a dozen movies but still puts his all into it so he’s gotten really great at taking guys like Van Damme, Lundgren or Michael Jai White and putting them in a story that really emphasizes their badass qualities. Florentine is also the guy that turned Adkins into a DTV icon, first stealing the show in Special Forces, then as the villain in Undisputed 2, who became the protagonist in Undisputed 3.

I think your favorite DTV production is Universal Soldier: Regeneration. Could you say a few words about why DTV doubters should see it?

That movie is the surprise masterpiece I’ve been hoping for ever since I started watching those screeners. It grabs you right from the beginning with this intense kidnapping, car chase and shootout. The cameras are right in the middle of the action but used very intentionally, not shaking all over the place. It takes these silly but fun sci-fi concepts from the original Roland Emmerich movie but treats them much more seriously. The music and sound design seem very influenced by Alien and The Terminator, it creates a really strong, grim atmosphere. The super soldiers are played mostly by MMA fighters so the fight scenes are really brutal. But there’s also something poetic about it, like the scene where Lundgren’s villain has been cloned after being chopped up in the original movie and he knows to fight Van Damme but can’t remember why. It’s this awesome sci-fi action movie but also says something about war taking away our humanity.

From the few I’ve seen, the DTV action movies seem to have a higher level of craft than Hollywood blockbusters because of their low budgets, forcing them to use more analog techniques (like using longer takes with real fighting instead of fx and rapid cutting). Do you think that is true, or am I exaggerating?

It seems that way because you’ve seen the very best ones. I gotta be honest, there’s a lot more crap than there is Undisputed. But I think that’s definitely true in best case scenarios like Hyams and Florentine. I compare them to the standout directors who were taking advantage of the drive-in market to do interesting stuff in the old days.

The standards keep going up for DTV and at the same time the standards for action scenes in theatrical releases are pretty much in the toilet. It’s like you’re not even expected to point the camera at the action anymore. Did you see Warrior? Really good sports drama, but the fighting tournament is literally shot to look like you’re in the audience with shitty seats where you can’t see anything. The fights are choreographed by J.J. Perry, but his work is showcased way better in DTV movies like Undisputed IIThe Tournament and The Shepherd: Border Patrol.

What upcoming DTV movies are you most looking forward to?

I can’t say Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning because that’s hopefully gonna be in theaters. I have some hopes for this one called The Package because it’s Jesse V. Johnson directing Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren, plus lesser known white guy martial artists Darren Shalavi and Jerry Trimble are in the cast. And I’m hoping Maximum Conviction will be fun because it teams Austin with Seagal. It’s all about team-ups right now.

If you had to select five DTV productions to convince someone to take DTV movies seriously, what would they be?

1. Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

2. Blood and Bone (2009): Michael Jai White is a badass motherfucker who gets out of prison, rents a room and enters an underground fighting circuit on a mysterious mission of revenge. He’s every bit as badass as he was in Black Dynamite but in a non-parody context. This reminds me of the best Van Damme movies like Lionheart, mixed with a little blaxploitation swagger. It has an excellent villain, a surprising use of a Wang Chung song, and great little touches like the legendary Bob Wall cameoing as his character from Enter the Dragon.

3. Undisputed II (2006) and III (2010): – I didn’t really like the original Undisputed even though it’s directed by Walter Hill and has a great performance by one of my favorites, Wesley Snipes. But in the sequels Isaac Florentine replaced the boxing with MMA and came up with the brilliant idea of turning the villain George “Iceman” Chambers (originally Ving Rhames, now Michael Jai White) into the protagonist to fight the Russian prison champ Boyka (Scott Adkins). Then in part 3 Boyka has to rebuild himself after defeat and face the great Chilean fighter Marko Zaror (Mandrill). Boyka is a convicted murderer but you find yourself rooting for him to win and escape.

4. Darkman III: Die Darkman Die (1996): I want to honor the rare good-DTV-sequel. Most are half-assed rejected-TV-pilot-esque rehashings with different characters. Darkman III is one of the rare DTV sequels that seems to fit the medium: it’s certainly not worthy of a theatrical release – I mean, Liam Neeson is replaced with Arnold Vosloo from Hard Target and The Mummy – but gives us an idea of some of the fun we might’ve had if more people had paid to see Darkman like we did. It’s from the writers of Face/Off, and they come up with all kinds of clever and funny things to happen to the vigilante master of disguise. My favorite is when he disguises himself as the villain (Jeff Fahey) to break into his house and walks into his surprise birthday party. Later he impersonates the villain again for the good cause of attending his daughter’s school play.

runners up: From Dusk Till Dawn II: Texas Blood Money and Hostel Part III, both directed by Scott Spiegel.

5. Belly of the Beast (2003): I gotta include a Steven Seagal picture on here. Urban Justice is his most hardcore DTV action movie, Out of Reach is maybe his funniest (he plays an animal rescuer/swordsman who has to rescue his orphan pen pal from white slavers) but I think Belly of the Beast is most representative of the DTV yin and yang: quality action mixed with charmingly sloppy filmmaking lunacy that would never make it to theaters. Helmed by the great Ching Siu-Tung (director of A Chinese Ghost Story, choreographer of Hero and Shaolin Soccer), it brings Seagal to Thailand to save his kidnapped daughter from Islamic extremists, a corrupt general, a transvestite and a sorcerer. There’s a great shootout and a fight in a market where a guy slips on a tomato and lands on a meat cleaver.

ACTION ITEMS: DIRECT-TO-VIDEO, INTO MY HEART

September 6, 2011

Screen Shot 2020-01-31 at 5.40.44 PM

Under the cover of disrespectability, direct-to-video (DTV) action movies are quietly throttling their theatrical brethren. Despite having budgets one-tenth of studio spectacles, these DTV scrappers excel where it matters most: the craft of shooting a fight scene. As the enigmatic film critic/ex-con Outlaw Vern stated in his review of The Marine 2, “Some of us are starting to suspect that there’s been a switcheroo, that the DTV format – once designated as a 100% crap zone – has become the more reliable place to find good [English language] action movies.”

Inspired, I watched Assassination Games (2011, on DVD/Blu today), Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) and Ninja (2009), where tussles are filmed to showcase the athleticism of the leads. The threadbare Bulgarian sets are coherently mapped out in master shots, so the close-ups of fist-to-face never throw off the geography of a scene. The camera generally keeps the combatants’ bodies completely in the frame, emphasizing a physicality generally lost in contemporary Hollywood (Jason Statham excepted), in which fights are reduced to a blur of cuts before a hired goon collapses. David Bordwell has identified this rapidly edited style as “intensified continuity”, an amplification of classical style that he places as starting “after 1960 or thereabouts.” These DTVers still fall in Bordwell’s post-1960s rubric, with shot lengths shorter than the classical era, but they offer a more authentic intensity, returning to feats of athleticism over editing.

The workhorses of DTV these days are Dolph Lundgren, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Christian Slater (who has 8 (!) movies listed as coming out this year), although Jean-Claude Van Damme is ramping up his schedule after his flirtation with respectability in JCVD (Lundgren and Van Damme will also cash a check for Expendables 2).  The only consistent indicator of quality, however, has been the presence of English actor Scott Adkins and Israeli director (and Power Rangers auteur) Isaac Florentine.  Both are trained martial artists, and their work together prizes lucidity of motion above all else (including the plot). In Undisputed II III, which I enthused about last year, Florentine used high-speed cameras to isolate Adkins’ attacks and reversals in an MMA-inspired fight tournament. Ninja, which was made between the two, brings their analytic fighting aesthetic to an urban setting (Sofia, Bulgaria rather unconvincingly standing in for NYC). They ditch the super-slo-mo, but keep the clean lines and camera distance, keeping Adkins’ body whole in the frame, like Fred Astaire demanded of his directors.

Adkins plays Casey, a military brat orphan raised in a Dojo in Japan. His nemesis is Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara), another prized student with daddy issues. Desperate to knock off Casey to impress their Sensei (Togo Igawa), Masazuka breaches the Dojo’s code of conduct and is expelled. Naturally, he dons a vulcanized ninja outfit and becomes a top assassin for an evil corporation (who also operate a cheesy death cult of some sort). These B-DTV trappings are mere action scene delivery systems, and it’s best not to let Adkins emote too much (the most he can muster is a frown of mild indigestion), but once the flesh starts flaying, Ninja satisfies. Take, for instance, the first battle between Casey and Masazuka, at the Dojo. It begins in long shot, with the full width of the house visible behind them.  Florentine maintains the distance as the fight with wooden training swords commences. He only cuts in closer when Masazuka lands a couple of blows, a punch and a slice that shatters Casey’s fake blade. After each of these accents Florentine returns to the long shot, re-orienting viewers to the space. It is a quick but effective sequence, representative of their work.

This can be seen more spectacularly in a brawl in a subway car (caught at the mythical “Noble St.” stop), into which Casey and lady friend Namiko are chased by the evil corporation’s thugs. Here a long shot is impossible, so Florentine opts for measured pans up and down, and a more-frequent use of slow-motion. Every element is isolated and accounted for – you see every gun kicked away and every blow landed. Low angles predominate, in which the ceiling offers another claustrophobic foe. In one sequence a mirthless baddie tosses a civilian towards Casey, and he leaps to avoid her. Cut to him continuing the leap up and through a guard rail, a bit of impromptu parkour. He lands and then ducks as the jerk throws a haymaker towards the camera. Cut to a reverse low angle, and after another block Casey is kicked halfway down the aisle, and the camera follows him all the way as it hovers close to the ground. This is a few seconds of screen time and yet it thrills with its logic and effortless flow.

Logic is not something one would associate with the Universal Soldier franchise, but this Regeneration, the third entry (or fifth, depending on whether you count a few TV movies), is as relentlessly rational a movie about half-robotic super soldiers can possibly be. It “stars” Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, although combined they don’t have more than 30 minutes of screen time. MMA fighters Mike Pyle and Andrei “The Pitbull” Arlovski, as Captain Burke and the robo-monster NGU, respectively, would get the box cover in an honest marketing campaign. But this is DTV, where descending stars cash checks for cameo appearances and top billing.

This adorable hucksterism aside, Regeneration is a bracingly brutal piece of work, with director John Hyams weaving his tracking shots through the post-Soviet rubble of  Chernobyl (again, shot in resourceful Sofia, Bulgaria). Instead of the detail-oriented approach of Florentine, Hyams opts for a kind of dystopic realism, the creation of the dust-choked atmosphere more important than the grace of an individual fighter. There are very few close-ups and a profusion of long, gliding takes. Peter Hyams (2010, Timecop), John’s father, is the cinematographer, and his technical chops and experience no doubt helped in creating these elaborate shots on a budget.

Its sci-fi trappings aside, this a straight-up kidnapping drama. The Russian president’s two children have been nabbed by an insurgent group, who then take over the Chernobyl nuclear plant and threaten to blow it up, along with the kids, if their fellow rebels in prison are not released. As it happens, they also have retained the services of Dr. Colin (a wonderfully neurotic Kerry Shale), who has the tech to produce the eponymous Universal Soldiers. The U.S. military gets involved, because that’s what they do, and create their own UniSols to free the kids. Van Damme is Luc Devereaux, an ex UniSol dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, who now lives in a mental health facility. Devereaux is dragged back into action, and Van Damme plays this broken down hero’s confusion with admirable vulnerability. Of course, once injected with the UniSol drugs, he becomes an insatiable killing machine, which in turn drains the last of the human out of him. It’s a surprisingly sad and despairing film, as much a reflection on Van Damme’s beat-up body as JCVD was.

The action is shot elegantly, never more so than in a minute-long SteadiCam take that opens the final act. Van Damme is blasting his way through the war zone, and sprints right. The camera races along with him. Two masked gunmen blast away in the left foreground, as Van Damme evades their bullets in the background. Then he leaps through a window and disappears. The camera follows the shooters in their confusion, until Van Damme bursts through a door and kills them. It’s surprising that the star is hidden from view in this manner, leaving the audience stranded with two villains, building a mini-drama out of his whereabouts. Instead of cutting to Van Damme’s hiding place, the Hyams clan opt to maintain the tension of the unbroken shot, which then continues. Van Damme pushes forward into building and stalks the hallway. As he inspects an adjacent room to the left, the camera does a 180 and picks him up as he re-enters, swinging right and left to capture the gunfights on either side. Peter Hyams continues these balletic weaves until Van Damme has slaughtered a small village. It is not triumphal but ruthlessly efficient.

Assassination Games teams up Adkins and Van Damme, in a touching DTV passing of the torch. Now, the film received a limited theatrical run in four cities, so it is technically not direct-to-video. However, it was shot in Eastern Europe (Bucharest this time), by DTV hack Ernie Barbarash, so it is at least spiritually direct-to-video, which is all that matters. This is the kitschiest of the DTV films I watched recently, but it still had its pleasures. Adkins plays retired hitman Roland Flint, who gave up his gig after his wife was attacked in the line of duty (she is played, comatose throughout, by Van Damme’s daughter Bianca van Varenberg). When he learns that the perpetrator, Polo (Ivan Kaye), is being released from prison, he re-enters the competitive assassination biz. However! Vincent Brazil (Van Damme) has been hired to kill Polo as well, and sullen stare downs ensue.

Barbarash does not show the visual flair of Florentine and Hyams, with bland, centrally framed (although still intelligible) set-pieces, but he has a playful sense of genre codes that enlivens the proceedings. Brazil is the effete assassin, who hides a secret ultra-modern apartment behind a bookshelf in his grimy Romanian walk-up. He has violins encased in glass, a pet turtle, and is fond of sharpening his knives topless. This is grandly ridiculous, although Van Damme is not one to camp it up. It’s a role that, from the current crop of DTV icons, Val Kilmer could have joyously hammed. Flint is a non-entity in comparison, a guy who loves his wife and not, apparently, much else. And with firearms his weapon of choice, Adkins does not get to display much of his uncanny athleticism, just his impeccable five-o-clock shadow. It’s a bizarre, amiable failure, too reserved to embrace its camp aesthetic, and unable to unleash the kinetic talents of its actors.

Admittedly I’ve only taken a small sample of direct-to-video titles, but there is more visual clarity in this group than in any English-language action movie I’ve seen the last few years (and I like the Luc Besson-produced titles like Taken, Unknown, et al.). The low budgets force producers to return to basics: showcasing the physical gifts of your leads and coming under budget. DTV movies sell based on the actors, so if they want to succeed they need to film them as legibly and forcefully as possible. And with low budgets, directors don’t have the time to shoot all the coverage that Hollywood directors engage in, which gives editors multiple shots and angle to play with in their action scenes. Here they keep film costs low, and give their cutters few options, but grateful viewers like myself far more.

MY TOP TEN GENRE MOVIES OF 2010

December 28, 2010

genre

I was able to see more movies during the year than this guy. To honor him, I’m going to run down my favorite Genre Films of 2010. As top-ten lists rain down upon us, a general consensus emerges and recurring titles get chewed over like regurgitated cud. So while I greatly admire The Social Network (#2 on my year-end list here), I feel no need to spill more metaphorical ink over it. What doesn’t get recognized during the awards season hullaballoo are the disreputable action/sci-fi/horror movies that earn profits and low Rotten Tomatoes scores. I’m using the colloquial definition of “genre films”, of macho flicks with b-movie scenarios, but in reality everything that’s produced slots into one genre or another (David Bordwell persuasively argues that even the art film is one). So forgive my semantic fudging for the sake of headline-writing brevity. In any case, anonymous disfigured corpse from The Crazies, this is for you.

In Alphabetical Order:

Buried, directed by Rodrigo Cortes

Buried is a horror movie about thought processes, how the mind continually attempts to work itself out of danger, constantly running scenarios that will lead to the healthiest outcome. In this case, the problem is a casket, as Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) has been buried alive by an Iraqi insurgent looking for ransom money. The camera never leaves the casket for the entire running time, and manages to sustain the tension of Conroy’s plight, endlessly cycling through possible rescue plans. Provided with a cell phone to stump for the money to be paid, he triangulates between family, work and the law as his desperation rises, marking up the wood panels with strategies of survival. In the end, it’s a tour-de-force about the limitations of technology and of thought itself.

***

Centurion, directed by Neil Marshall

Remnants of a slaughtered platoon of Roman Soldiers navigate their way back home through Northern Scotland while fighting their way through the rebellious Pict natives. Director Neil Marshall (The Descent) is a reliable hand for cogently framing bloody mayhem, and the climactic battle between the splinter of Romans and Pict warriors is smartly choreographed. The central battle stakes Michael Fassbender against Olga Kuryenko, and the final blow is established in wide shot as Fassbender somersaults toward his victim. Then in two percussive inserts Marshall ends the secondary fight (a spear to the undercarriage) and the main one, as Fassbender places downward pressure on the sword after his sprightly evasive maneuver. The way in which Marshall creates a rhythm and clarity to this sequence, out of boilerplate material, is indicative of the film’s scrappy ingenuity.

***

The Crazies, directed by Breck Eisner

A relentless remake of George Romero’s 1973 original, it outlines the chaos that ensues after a biological weapon crash lands in a small mid-western town, turning its residents into psychotic murderers. I prized this one for its pared down screenplay, which strips away backstory, revealing character only through action. The narrative is constantly pushing forward, just like Sheriff David Dutten (Timothy Olyphant), who tries to spirit his wife out of the newly quarantined hot zone. Olyphant has perfected a thoughtful stoicism in his work, playing heroes who do the right thing, but whose pauses and mutterings imply that he wishes doing good wasn’t so much goddamn work.

***

Devil, directed by John Erick Dowdle

Slightly roomier than Buried, this M. Night Shyamalan produced potboiler takes place almost entirely in an elevator. A group of abrasive city-folk get stuck in a lift and start turning on each other. So far, so realistic, but there’s a metaphysical morality play tacked on to justify the underlying savagery. While this is a bit of a cop-out, I’ll forgive anything to watch DP Tak Fujimoto wend his SteadiCam around a neon-lit office building, tracing the paths of fate.

***

From Paris With Love, directed by Pierre Morel

This ridiculous concoction is the jokey B-side to Taken, Morel’s humorless revenge drama from 2009. Instead of a brow-furrowing Liam Neeson, it’s a face-pulling John Travolta, who plays CIA agent Charlie Wax like a macho Jerry Lewis (his yammers are punctuated by nasal screams, and he leaves destruction in his wake, except with Travolta it’s intentional). The fight scenes have the physics of a Loony Tunes short and the plot is totally improbable. In short, it’s almost perfect. If only the lead-footed Jonathan Rhys Meyers subplot hadn’t kept diverting things from the aria of Charlie Wax.

***

Frozen, directed by Adam Green

Frozen is a fine lesson in theme and variation. The plot is minimal, three dopey college kids stranded on a ski lift, but writer/director Green elaborates an escalating series of reasons for his characters to be terrified. The calculus of escape shifts from avoiding frostbite to stanching blood loss to avoiding death-by-wolf over the course of the first hour. It is the patience with which Green allows each new variation to sink in, to allow the morbid thought processes of each vapid character to be drawn out, that nicely ratchets up the tension of this minimalist bit of indie-horror.

***

Resident Evil: Afterlife, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

On a purely visual level, one of the most impressive films I saw this year. Fully embracing 3D technology, Anderson sets up shots to emphasize depth, from the multi-layered, multi-planar Umbrella headquarters to the relative simplicity of a hole in the ground (which Joe Dante also explored in 3D in his still-undistributed The Hole). In the opening sequence, the background and foreground planes of action are so clear there is no need for cross-cutting. And Milla Jovovich continues her superb run as Alice, working the stoic hero territory as well as, say, Timothy Olyphant.

***

Splice, directed by Vincenzo Natali

A disturbing entry in the mad (but adorable) scientist sub-genre, it finds Adrian Brody and Sarah Polly gene-splicing their way to unwanted parenthood. Their little lab-creature develops a major Electra complex, and soon ignites the relationship anxieties simmering below the surface. They explode in psycho-incestual images that are hard to shake.

***

Undisputed 3, directed by Isaac Florentine

Direct-to-video but none the worse for it, this is the third part of a series initiated by Walter Hill in 2002 (I wrote about the whole series back in June). It refreshes the fight tournament scenario by capturing a variety of attacking styles with a high-speed camera, from capoeira to taekwondo, and hires athletes rather than slumming actors. Marko Zaror steals the show as the villain, a Garcia Lorca-reading heroin addict who is my pick for cinematic asshole of the year.

***

Unstoppable, directed by Tony Scott

The pleasures of motion, rendered with lucidity. There’s a runaway train, and Denzel Washington and Chris Pine have to track it down. The forward movement is not just over lines of track but through lines of communication.  Scott’s nimble cross-cutting between CEOs, middle-managers and station chief Rosario Dawson lays down the social strata that Denzel and Pine are burning through in order to do their jobs. It is within this shorthand class structure that slam-bang montages of speeding trains raise the pulse and recall the original cinematic thrill of the Lumiere Brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.

MARTIAL FINE ARTISTS: NINJA II – SHADOW OF A TEAR

December 31, 2013

Screen Shot 2020-01-23 at 1.52.09 PM

The best action movie of 2013 went direct to video. Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear comes out today on DVD and Blu-ray, and was released on VOD earlier in the month. It is the seventh DTV collaboration between director Isaac Florentine and actor Scott Adkins, trained martial artists driven to bring clarity to the fight film, showcasing athleticism rather than camera blur. This is a ninja revenge movie without filigree, stocked with some of the most intricate moves this side of Fred Astaire, arranged by fight choreographer Tim Man. For his dance sequences Astaire demanded to be framed in long shots, to convey the full expression of his body, and Florentine takes a similar approach with Adkins. As Adkins told me in an interview yesterday: “We want to show the action, we don’t want to hide it. We know when they do the shakycam and everything we know why they do that. What you’re actually seeing looks shit, so you shake the camera to give the impression something amazing is happening. All you’re actually seeing is nothing. We try not to do that, we want to show the performers, the highly trained, physical performers, doing what they do best. In a very balletic, graceful way.”

The first Ninja (2009) was a broad comic book-style action movie, with a corporate death cult threatening the safety of NYC. Casey Bowman (Adkins) is the orphan raised in a dojo who tears down their international conspiracies with the help of fellow student Namiko (Mika Hijii). With its kitschy hooded villains and unconvincing Bulgaria-for-NYC locations, it’s more Adam West than Christian Bale, superhero-wise. If you are a cheese aficionado, it is a profound experience, but even if not, there are some miraculous fight sequences, including a closed-quarters slobberknocker in a subway car (which Jason Statham borrowed for Safe). For the sequel, they wanted to make “an old-school martial arts film”, as Adkins put it. This time around Bowman has married Namiko, and they run the Japanese dojo in which he was raised. A brutal attack destroys this idyll, and Bowman snaps, violently tracking down the drug lord Goro (Shun Sugata), whom he suspects of the crime. It’s a simple narrative line to hang a series of wildly inventive fight sequences on.

The revenge plot and use of ninjitsu is reminiscent of the Sho Kosugi ninja trilogy from the 1980s (Enter the Ninja (’81), Revenge of the Ninja (’83) and Ninja III: The Domination (’84)). All three were produced by Menahem Golan and Yoran Globus’ Cannon Films, and it was Golan that gave Florentine his first directing job (Desert Kickboxer  (’92)). Florentine even casts Sho Kosugi’s son Kane in a pivotal role as Casey’s enigmatic friend and rival Nakabara. Adkins comes out of a kickboxing background, so his version of a ninja mixes in showy kick acrobatics with the Japanese styles. His influences also differ from Florentine. While the Israeli-born director emerged out of endearingly slapdash Cannon Films canon, Adkins grew up idolizing Bruce Lee and Van Damme before turning to martial arts himself. A real student of the form, he provided mentioned is fight film favorites to be Enter the Dragon, Fist of Legend, Drunken Master 2 and Armor of God. Their interests complement each other, as Florentine learned how to stretch a buck while Adkins studied how to make bodies look fluid on-screen.

In one interesting experiment they attempt a one-take fight scene, set at a rival Japanese dojo. Casey is there snooping out information on two local thugs, and takes out all five men in an unbroken forty second shot. It is not as ambitious as those of Tony Jaa in The Protector or Choi Min-Sik in Oldboy, but it serves a different purpose. This is not a showstopper but a scene-setter, displaying Casey’s easily snappable temper and setting up the array of fighting styles to come. He takes them out with brawling punches, soaring spin kicks, and a submission arm-bar. Adkins, who admitted to being exhausted after shooting seven takes of this, is a stylistic chameleon, with the looks and power of a brute force brawler but with the ability to execute nimble air strikes. With a handheld camera Florentine and his longtime DP Ross W. Clarkson float around Adkins, a member of the bout rather than an observer. The camera privileges the fighter, but also engages in its own choreography, dancing with the brawlers. Adkins mentioned this camera choreography as party of his fight film philosophy:

A lot of people, the way they get it wrong is they document the action, as if making a documentary. From that side, that side, and that side, with a long lens or whatever. That’s not the way to do it. You need to get the camera in, with the action performers, moving in unison with them, and the camera should be as choreographed as the performers are. You’re part of the action, not watching it from afar. That’s what good action filmmaking is all about.

Their showstopper in Ninja 2 is a barroom brawl that tips its cap to Drunken Master and Kickboxer. Casey is drinking himself into oblivion when a loudmouth drunk splashes him with booze. Needing little provocation, he proceeds to decimate ever loser in the joint. Ninja II uses inebriated fighting to darker comedic ends than the Jackie Chan and Van Damme films. The Chan and JCVD personas have something of the beatific innocent about them, their moves very clearly for show – a performance. Adkins is a more brooding type, his most fully formed character the anti-heroic convict Boyka in the Undisputed series, who fights not to please, but as an instinctual survival mechanism. The same is true of Casey, whose only remaining identity is tied to the dojo and the study of ninjitsu (although the film shows only a smidgen of that form). In the bar he completely loses his self control, revealing himself to be nothing other than a very nimble town lush. But he does it with style. Florentine keeps the camera at a distance, occasionally isolating the more spectacular feats with cut-ins and slow motion. But every blow is visible, as his regular editor Irit Raz (Florentine always works with the same crew) cuts the sequence percussively, on every meaty kick or knife-wielding snik.

There are countless other memorable battles here, which is remarkable considering the restraints of time, money, and Adkins’ aching back, which he seriously injured on the set. But despite all the limitations of DTV productions, Florentine and Adkins are relentlessly pursuing, and have nearly perfected, a pure form of the fight film, returning the genre to its roots as simply capturing fine-tuned bodies in collision-course motion. Hopefully we get to see their next distillation in 2014, with the highly anticipated Undisputed IV tentatively slated for release.

MODERN FIGHT FILMS: THE UNDISPUTED TRILOGY

June 15, 2010

469dde0af4d64d66fb29e3eb71288330

Walter Hill made his directorial debut with Hard Times (1975), a downbeat portrait of Depression-era gamblers, bare-knuckle brawlers, and the women who put up with them. In 2002, Hill made Undisputed (2002), another fight film, this time set at a prison in the Mojave desert, where a recently jailed ex-heavyweight champ faces off against an undefeated inmate fighter.  Two direct-to-video sequels were spun off of the latter, with the third hitting DVD and Blu-ray this past week (Thanks to IFC’s Matt Singer for recommending #3).

In Hard Times, Hill utilizes the wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio to stage scenes in depth, capturing desperate faces in the background cheering on the back alley brawls. During fight scenes, Hill cuts for strategically dramatic emphasis and spatial coherence. When a bald thug lands a blow, Hill cuts back and forth between reaction shots of Charles Bronson (the new fighter in town) and James Coburn (his shyster manager), interspersed with a long shot of the pier on which the scrum is taking place. In this sequence he efficiently establishes the initial goals of the plot – Bronson will destroy the baldie and set up a feud with his opposing  fur-lined coat wearing  manager.  As a fight scene, it’s crisp and coherent, almost always keeping both men’s bodies in the frame, and switching from low to high angles to establish the shifting fortunes of the “hitters”, as Coburn calls them.

In Undisputed (2002) the tempo is sped up considerably, but Hill maintains spatial continuity and dramatic interest. The opening bout is held in a cage, in which there is a similar scene in Hard Times. In both instances, the set has steeply sloped audience seating, and Hill repeatedly cuts to high-angle shots to establish the carinvalesque, Roman Colosseum feel of the bouts. Undisputed packs in far more exposition though, with repeated flashbacks (in B&W) to the back-stories of the main participants (Ving Rhames’ Iceman and Wesley Snipes’ Monroe Hutchen). There is also repeated use of white flashes to cover jump-cuts, adding to the jittery rhythm. And where Hard Times has sparing use of slow-moving pans, Undisputed utilizes a roving SteadiCam in and around the ring.  But even with all of these MTV style additions, the fights are clearly mapped out, with same use of high-low angles to chart the fortunes of the bout. Hill uses the tools of modern ADD-cinema to his advantage, packing in tons of information, from mobster Peter Falk’s love of boxing (cuts to B&W Joe Louis fights) to the details of Iceman’s arrest.

Hill introduces Iceman as a multplied image on a TV monitor, a media creation. First we see interviewer Jim Lampley behind a screen asking a question, but instead of a cut to Ving Rhames, Hill cuts to the production room and his image on television. This clever reversal sets up the gassy bravado of Rhames’ character – who is constantly performing his “warrior” image. In contrast, Snipes is depicted as all interior, quietly building temples out of toothpicks, and speaking only when absolutely necessary. The film is filled with resourceful character bits like this. Rhames and Snipes are in top form here (while Falk enjoyably swallows the scenery whole), and with Hill and fight choreographer Cole S. McKay’s  lucid setups, Undisputed is an underrated entry in the history of the fight film.

Four years later, production company Nu Image (and their subsidiary, Millenium Films), resurrected the title for a sequel, hiring Power Rangers veteran (and martial artist) Isaac Florentine to crank out a low-budget direct-to-video version. Ving Rhames was replaced by Michael Jai White (Spawn), and was re-located to Eastern Europe to take advantage of their low production costs. Instead of trying to pass off Bulgaria as Venice (as they did in the landmark Sharks in Venice), they relocate Iceman to a Russian prison, where he’s jailed on a frame-up drug charge. It’s a ruse by Russian mobster Gaga (Mark Ivanir) to set up a fight with Boyka (Scott Adkins), the champ on his highly lucrative prison fight circuit, which is broadcast to private gambling clubs.

Where the original Undisputed builds a semi-realistic version of prison life, the sequels focus entirely on the fight sequences. The plot is negligible, the supporting cast weak, but the fighting is superb. The term “B movie” is much abused these days, but the Undisputeds honor the scrappy spirit of the Republic and Monogram studios. Limited to a few sets and a flimsy narrative, these cheapies pack in more impressive physical feats than any Hollywood blockbuster that will be released this year.

Florentine, Jai White and Adkins are all trained in martial arts, and have boxes full of black belts among them. So what the film loses in character detail, it gains in athleticism, incorporating more styles in its version of mixed martial-arts. Once called “human cockfighting” by John McCain, MMA, as promoted by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, has become halfway respectable and turned into one of the most popular sports in the world.

Jai White is a low-key performer, offering none of the sarcastic menace of Rhames, but he’s lithe and powerful in the ring. Adkins is the reason these films got popular, however. A nimble Englishman donning a believable Russian accent, he possesses incredible balance and gymnastic aerial skills – the Astaire to Jai White’s Rogers. Florentine is no Walter Hill, but his fight scenes are clean and economical, mostly keeping both fighters in the frame, with the occasional close-up for emphasis. It’s bracing to watch such simple craft since quick-cut Bourne-clones ruined action movies over the past decade. Florentine’s main tic is using high-speed cameras for super slow motion in capturing Adkins’ more athletic twirlings, moments in which he’s turned into a religious icon of the ring (like the etchings his character prays to before each match). My friend Matt Singer objected to its use in his article, but I think it’s essential to the construction of these films – further illuminating the physicality of the performers.

Listening to their fan base, Adkins is turned from villain to hero in the third, and most satisfying film in the series. Not only does Adkins prove to be an appealingly mulish lead, but the film is filled with breezy supporting turns as well. Mark Ivanir is back as Gaga, played with sardonic charm, and veteran character actors (check out their resumes) Robert Costanzo and Vernon Dobtcheff provide American buffoonery and East-Euro creepiness  with as much bravado as Peter Falk did a crusty old man in the original.

Mobsters from around the world gather for an international prison fighting tournament, betting on the champ from their own country. After getting his leg snapped in Undisputed 2, Boyka is reduced to cleaning toilets while rehabbing his knee at night. He claws his way into the tournament, only to discover it was rigged by the crooked Georgian, Rezo (Dobtcheff). As if pulling names from American Gladiator, he befriends a Yank named Turbo (the I Wanna Be A Soap Star winner Mykel Shannon Jenkins) and plans on upending the whole money-grubbing show.

The tournament shows off a wide variety of fighting styles from a Brazilian’s capoeira to a North Korean’s taekwondo to the unnameable dance-fighting of Dolor (Marko Zaror), the Colombian and Arch-Villain. Prone to shooting heroin in his neck and reading Garcia Lorca under an umbrella shade, he’s a wildly entertaining villain and an equally unpredictable fighter. Pulling aspects of capoeira, boxing, and the tango together with self-regarding verve – his climactic fight against Boyka is an epic and strategic delight. Dolor attacks Boyka’s knee, destroying the Russian’s aerial attack, so Boyka switches tactics and uses a ground game of submission moves and tackles. It’s a nicely thought out piece of fighting psychology that encapsulates the Undisputed series,  a group of films that shows visual and emotional intelligence where you’d least expect it.